01/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Murdoch and Polonius: A Subscriber's Report

Just over year ago, amid fretting and swooning, Rupert Murdoch took over The Wall Street Journal, owned by the same families since 1889. Readers and media critics worried that he would dumb down or tart up the nation's first successful national newspaper. Some familiar, even beloved, bylines migrated elsewhere. But new ones appeared and they have produced concise news stories filled with insight and devoid of propaganda. Plus, scoops aplenty. Google and Procter & Gamble executives and employees are meeting and cross-fertilizing? That's a good story. The Australian-born baron of news was initially skeptical about the Internet, but is now up and running smoothly.

This record of quality in news may surprise some, but diversity of taste is a hallmark of the News Corporation. As they say at Murdoch family picnics, "In my father's house there are many mansions." In London, where Murdoch began his worldwide newspaper acquisition spree, The Times is still The Times while the Sun rises with the largest daily circulation on earth. In 1970, Murdoch introduced the Page Three Girl to Sun readers, a topless lass who brightens the daily commute of British blokes. If pastors and other moralists in America ever caught a gander, they might blush, but not deeply enough to stop watching Murdoch's Fox News.

It is a compliment to Rupert Murdoch to suggest that he has a tabloid soul. He loves competition and enjoys shaking up established institutions, especially while making plenty of money. In London and worldwide, he has a take-no-prisoners stance. With the Journal, his aim seems to be to crush the Financial Times, the salmon-colored international daily, and to wait until The New York Times wilts under economic pressure, then snatch it at a bargain price. Competition, rare in the newspaper business, has proved to be healthy for all. The Journal is behind the NYT in overall news and still playing catchup against the FT's global perspective and weekend cultural section.

When Murdoch bought out the Bancroft family that had owned most of Dow Jones, one promise he made seemed superfluous. He would not change the editorial page, which celebrates, even venerates, free markets. At the Journal, the division between news and editorials has been longstanding. In the Washington bureau and elsewhere, many a Journal reporter has quickly, pleadingly, told interviewees and possible sources, "I have nothing to with the editorials." That assertion may be superfluous now, not because of ideology, but reality. Amid the rubble of Capitalism As We Knew it, Journal editorials haven't changed. That's the problem.

The Journal's editorial page has generally been conservative, reliably Republican and sometimes eccentric to the point of obsession, especially in the 1990s, when the late editorial page editor, Robert Bartley, played Captain Ahab to Moby Bill. How many editorials did the Journal write about the Arkansas land deal involving President Clinton? Enough to fill 586 pages of "Whitewater," published a year before Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. More volumes followed. Many subscribers may still treasure a leatherbound copy of this quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore out of nostalgia. During the Reagan era, the Journal was the L'Osservatore Romano of tax-cutting dogma. Bartley's belief in free men and free markets also informed the Journal's crusade against changes in campaign-finance laws.

During the Bush presidency, the Journal showed editorial leadership opposing frothing xenophobia about illegal immigration. While many conservatives heeded AM radio's spiritual descendants of Rev. Charles E. Coughlin and Fulton Lewis Jr., radio demagogues of the 1930s and 1940s, the Journal wisely turned a deaf ear.

In 2008, during the biggest financial news story since 1929, the credibility of the Journal's ed page coughed, sputtered, and collapsed. After the Bernanke-Paulson midnight intervention on behalf of banks, the Journal stared socialism in the face and choked. It finally agreed on Oct. 15, with Paulson that the moves were distasteful but necessary.

In their search for villains, the editorialists, still in thrall to the magic of the marketplace, focused on the chairmen of the banking committees, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, along with their supposed co-conspirators, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All have received the Whitewater drip treatment, relentlessly replete with allegations, some of them factually shaky (see Rep. Frank's December Huffington posting).

As a faithful subscriber, I look every day to see whether Fannie, Freddie, Barney and Chris will be joined in the dock. Even if Fannie and Freddie are full of misfeasance and malfeasance, how exactly did they infect the bastions of wisdom, prudence and integrity on Wall Street? Any chance that the masters of the universe may have been a tiny bit overleveraged? In its attitude toward investment banks and their decisions, the Journal editorial board resembles a triptych of primates, seeing, hearing and speaking no culpability, no responsibility, no accountability.

The drumbeat echoes for Fannie and Freddie and Barney and Chris. How about Bear and Stearns, Lehman and Lehman, Goldman and Sachs, Merrill and Lynch? Any useful editorial fodder in the creative writing of their annual reports? The longer that question goes unanswered the longer the Journal's ed page will evoke the odd uncle at the holiday table, muttering, "The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?"

Barney and Chris can defend themselves, but one important fact is this: they are not Bolsheviks, but Tip O'Neill Democrats. Both served under the late Speaker and learned how politics works in a sound, bipartisan way. A one-man play in Boston this fall, According to Tip by Dick Flavin, cites an O'Neill belief: "I'm a liberal, but I'm not damned fool about it." Conservatives could find that sentiment helpful.

As a longtime fan of the Journal, I look forward to Richard Tofel's biography of Barney Kilgore, the reporter who explained the New Deal to readers and later, the editor who expanded the paper's reach and stood up to General Motors when GM withheld ads to protest reporting. GM lost then, but in today's no-fault atmosphere, Journal editorials blame the auto industry's woes not on Detroit, but Washington, and its pesky insistence on anti-pollution and pro-union laws.

The Bernard Madoff saga, another echo of the 1920s, elicited a wan, passive sigh Dec. 15. "The real lesson here is about men, not markets. Human nature doesn't change. And crooks will always be with us," the Dec. 15 editorial said, quoting Shakespeare, "the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves." That was Cassius speaking to Brutus. Why not cite Polonius, patron saint of the time-will-tell school of editorial writing? He advised his son Laertes, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."

On Nov. 21, the Journal printed a full-page house add promising, in large type, "More Knowledge. More Insight. More Confidence." In today's markets, two out of three is not good enough. Instilling confidence requires confronting reality. Swatting around straw men isn't enough.

As an editorial page editor, I admired the get-out-of-the-office gumption of the Bartley's editorial page. The compelling journalistic mission for today's Journal is not ideology or philosophy, but one of abiding importance, the local angle, in this case, neighborhood news. Wall Street was named for the structure ordered by Peter Stuyvesant in 1653 to keep out invaders. Twelve feet high, it also had a gate at what is now Pearl and Wall Street. Its name was Watergate.